FAN EDIT REVIEW: The Star Wars Trilogy – Harmy’s Despecialized Editons

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Original Films Directed by George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, and Richard Marquand, Written by George Lucas, Leigh Brackett, and Lawrence Kasdan
Fan Edit by Harmy
Category: Reconstruction

While most fan edits can usually be distilled down to the editor’s subjective goal for a film, there is a rapidly-growing facet of the community that involves the creation of reconstructions. These are edits which do not seek to create a wholly new version of the film, but rather to restore a previously unavailable version, using a number of different home video sources. While he was hardly the first, one can say this method of fan editing truly came into its own with Czech editor Harmy, and his excellent Star Wars Despecialized Editions.

First, a brief history lesson, courtesy of the first half of this very informative short documentary:

In case you can’t watch the video, in effect, everything that the original Star Wars film won Oscars for–the visual effects, the set and costume design, sound design–was significantly altered by George Lucas twenty years later to produce the Special Edition, a series of cuts that he felt lived up to his original vision for the trilogy. While the merits of these versions have been and continue to be endlessly debated by fans, the original versions are, at the time of this writing, MIA, in either original print form or on high definition (or acceptable standard definition, for that matter) video.

Enter Harmy, a Czech English teacher and video enthusiast, who sought to restore the original versions of the trilogy in the vein of an early effort by Revisited editor Adywan, by combining different video sources to bring the film back to its original state. Thus, the Despecialized Editions were born.

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The first versions of the edits, available in MKV form, concentrated on two major fronts: correcting the massive alterations to the color timings of the films, and of course, reversing the editorial and visual effects changes that Lucas has made over three successive variations of the Special Editions. Even in these lower-bitrate versions, made with upscales of the Laserdisc-derived 2006 DVD releases of the original trilogy, were quite a step above the official Blu-ray release of 2011 in fidelity to the first-released cuts.

In the years since, Harmy has kept up with changes in both video editing technology and newly-available preservations of the original films, updating each edit accordingly. For this review, I used v2.7 of Star Wars, v2.0 of Empire, and v2.5 of Jedi, in two forms: the full MKV files and a custom blu-ray set made by editor NJVC. While both versions contain the same multitude of audio and subtitle tracks, the blu-rays lower the bitrate slightly in order to fit every feature onto a disc. This doesn’t bother me much, considering I don’t sit close enough to my 40-inch TV to notice a difference, but pick accordingly to your tastes.

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Star Wars v2.7 is undoubtedly the centerpiece of Harmy’s set, considering how extensively the original film has been altered in 4 decades. In addition to the highest number of new visual effects, Star Wars suffered a heavily-skewed color palette, to the point that flesh tones begin to take on incredibly rosy complexions. The Despecialized Edition mercifully corrects this, using a well-preserved 35mm print as reference for correct theatrical color timing. The film is no longer forced to conform to the look of the prequels, appearing as it once did in 1977.

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Top: 2011 Bu-ray, Bottom: Despecialized v2.7

And of course, every successive VFX change is reversed–from things as huge as the original ILM Death Star battle to tweaks as small as restoring the orange blob of Vaseline under Luke’s desert speeder, nothing goes unnoticed by Harmy. Each original shot is returned through numerous different sources, depending on which is the highest quality version available; while most of the video is a color-corrected blu-ray rip, changes made to that master are reversed by taking from HD broadcasts of the 2004 DVDs or the 1997 Special Edition, and so on.

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When it becomes necessary to restore a shot that was only in the original version, fan-produced upscales of the 2006 DVDs are utilized, with elements taken from two noteworthy film preservations, Team Negative 1’s Silver Screen Edition and the 16mm Puggo Grande Edition. The video above explains the process in much better detail than I can in these paragraphs, but to over-summarize, the amount of work that went into creating these cuts prove that sometimes, the fans care more about something special than the creator.

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Empire and Jedi, while containing their fair share of VFX alterations, were less butchered by Lucasfilm, with the changes limited more to the inclusion of previously deleted footage and alternate audio takes. The latter example further displays the collaborative nature of the Despecialized Editions, with Harmy enlisting the approved usage of another fan project: a recreation of the original theatrical mixes. Produced by Hairy_hen mainly using the 1993 Laserdisc mixes, the main audio options replicate the standard 35mm stereo and the 70mm six-track mixes that were originally heard in theaters, with the first film also including the mono mix. All are presented in DTS-HD Master Audio, and while most certainly aren’t reference-material, hold up to the official releases quite well.

Each MKV file is quite massive, weighing in at an average of over 30 GBs, with bitrates approaching an average of 20 MBPS. The latest versions are still in 720p, but look stunningly beautiful in their original forms compared to the official releases, which are varyingly faded or glossed over with digital enhancements. The blu-ray set by NJVC doesn’t really handle the grain field as well, but as I mentioned before, unless you’re sitting right in front of the TV, this isn’t really something you will notice. Later versions of the MKVs are stated by Harmy to be in full 1080p resolution, owing to new elements pulled from Team Negative 1’s now finished Silver Screen Edition and a new set of prints being restored by an OriginalTrilogy Forum member known as Poita.

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But that’s not all! Both options include a selection of interesting and excellent features, many of which aren’t easily available anywhere else. On the MKV files, no less than twenty different audio options are available: in addition to the theatrical mixes, the original Laserdisc tracks are included in Dolby Digital form, along with a wide array of foreign dubs (my favorites are the German and Japanese tracks. So awesome and funny at the same time). There are also audio commentaries available from the Laserdiscs, DVDs, and Blu-rays, with Star Wars also presenting a rare official website podcast commentary by Pablo Hidalgo. Finally, each one provides an English Descriptive Audio track (so caring and thoughtful of the fans. If only Lucas could be the same).

In addition to the audio tracks, an equally-impressive selection of subtitles is collected from the Project Threepio effort, ranging from English to such overlooked languages as Thai and Navajo.

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The NJVC blu-ray set, available in several options, ups the ante in the extras field with several more commentaries such as Internet podcasts by Rebel Force Radio and Collider, and even Rifftrax by the MST3K crew themselves, along with a few more subtitle options. The bonus features discs include a collection of goodies from around the inter-webs, such as featurettes detailing the changes made to the films over the years, parody productions, documentaries, deleted scenes, trailers and TV spots, and even the excellent filmumentaries by Jamie Benning. All of the discs are finished with full motion menus which further push the official feel of this set.

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All in all, this is a great time to be a Star Wars fan. The dark years of the late 1980s have passed, as have the Lucas years, where Star Wars was kept under the stranglehold of a veritable Darth Vader, a man who has become everything about the Hollywood system he used to hate. Look at it now, with new, acclaimed films in theaters, TV series killing it on the small screen, and fan productions restoring to us our most treasured memories of the Galaxy Far, Far Away, things are finally looking up. So this Christmas, or Star Wars Day, or anytime you want, fire up the Despecialized Editions and enjoy yourself. You finally can again.

HOW TO GET IT:
Despite the crackdown on p2p file sharing going on these days, the Despecialized Editions are still easily and readily available in just about every corner of the web today, thanks in no small part to their popularity. If you are going through the official channels, visit this Harmy-approved guide, which will walk you through the different methods of obtaining the digital files, whether in the full MKV versions or lower-quality AVCHD files.

NJVC’s blu-ray set was briefly unavailable due to the creator pulling it from circulation–it appears that several unscrupulous individuals were selling the sets on Ebay. However, another fan has graciously and with NJVC’s support made them available again. All you need is a blu-ray burner and the discs, and you are good to go!

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FAN EDIT REVIEW: Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back – Revisited

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Original Film Directed by Irvin Kershner, Written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan
Fan Edit by Adywan
Category: FanFix

The home video history of Star Wars and of the art of fan editing itself are heavily intertwined. Beginning in 2000 with Mike J. Nichols’ The Phantom Edit, the resultant “remix culture” that has surrounded George Lucas’ more controversial 21st Century fingerprints on his magnum opus has now ballooned into a complete community as extensive as cosplay culture. Needless to say, there are now tons of Star Wars fan edits out there, and are as varied as the selection at a Baskin-Robbins; you have Harmy’s Despecialized Edition restorations of the original unaltered trilogy, grindhouse mixes like The Man Behind the Mask”s War of the Stars, Christopher Nolan-style time-benders like Star Wars: Renascent, and you have your basic fanfixes, like The Phantom Edit.

Emerging in the late 2000s with several restorations, editor Adrian Sayce–better known as Adywan–soon established his own indelible mark upon the Star Wars fan editing nation with Star Wars Revisited, a massive reimagining of the modern state of the original trilogy. While seeing the merit in the concept of a Special Edition, Adywan set out to heavily alter Lucas’ re-edited versions, in an attempt to produce “what the Special Editions should have been.”

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Adywan’s Revisited version of Episode IV – A New Hope was released in 2009, and quickly became a popular edit with its intricately-crafted new visual effects, massive color regrading, and subtle fixes to stupid mistakes that Lucasfilm should have repaired long ago (Obi-Wan’s lightsaber changing to a dimly-lit pole comes to mind). After 7 years of hard work, his long-awaited followup, The Empire Strikes Back Revisited, is finally here, and it was so worth the wait.

As of this writing, it is only available as a 720p x264 file at a size of around seven gigabites, but even on this relatively shrimpy format the edit is simply stunning. Even a cursory scroll-through of the screenshots from the x264 version reveals a picture far superior to even the official Blu-rays. While liberties are taken with many elements in order to bring the film in line with Adywan’s vision of a functional director’s cut, ESB-R is second only to Harmy’s Despecialized Edition in fidelity to the original theatrical image.

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Even the majority of his changes seem to minimize the shock inherent to seeing an altered version of a movie so many remember so well. For example, Obi-Wan’s Force ghost on Hoth is no longer lacking the characteristic edge sparkle it and all the others possess, but Adywan keeps the brightness on it down low enough to not break the mirage-like effect that particular ghost was always meant to have. Many other changes, while substantially more noticeable, always make sense: the Battle of Hoth now contains more AT-STs to offset the out-of-place original occurrence of the vehicle; the swamps of Dagobah are a little more crawling with exotic creatures; the asteroid field is even more intense with an expansion of the field on the z axis. Every change is not forced or full of nonsense.

Like with A New Hope Revisited, the film has been through a complete color re-grading, although this time it seems less noticeable, no doubt due to how screwed up the previous film’s color palette was by Lucasfilm. In addition, various technical gaffes and limitations have been fixed, including all new starfields and smoothed out jump cuts. Lightsaber and blaster effects have all been completely rotoscoped by Adywan.

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Not every change is perfection, however; in what I believe will be his most controversial, Adywan has used CG to further animate the Yoda puppet’s mouth. In some scenes it works, in others it’s just distracting. Hey, at least it’s not a full CG Yoda, right?

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With ESB-R, Adywan has reclaimed his place at the top of the fan edit mountain. With picture and sound even better than the official blu-rays, and additions and fixes that, for the most part, greatly improve upon Lucas’ own hair-brained ideas, The Empire Strikes Back Revisited should be in everyone’s fan edit collection.

HOW TO GET IT:
Visit Adywan’s how-to-download page for details on getting the 8gb .mkv. DVD-5, DVD-9 and Blu-ray versions will be available sometime in the future.

 

REVIEW: The Lego Movie (2014)

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Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Written by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, Story by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Phil Lord, and Christopher Miller
Starring the Voices of Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Charlie Day, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman

Hey guys, did you know that everything is awesome? That everything is cool when you’re part of a team? Everything is awesome, when you’re living the dream! Indeed it is, especially when that dream is turning the bastard child video series of a multi-million selling construction toy into one of the greatest movies to be released in recent memory.

Emmett (Chris Pratt), a completely ordinary LEGO mini-figure who lives his life like everyone else–according to the instructions–is identified as the most “extraordinary person” and the key to saving the Lego universe. Emmett and his friends go on an epic journey to stop the evil tyrant, Lord Business (Will Ferrell), whose evil plans to ensure order in his world with a powerful weapon threatens to freeze the entire LEGO realm in place–forever! As a prophecy about ‘Special’ comes true with the discovery of ‘Piece of Resistance,’ Emmett must tangle with the likes of Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), Micro managers and ‘Man from upstairs’ during his journey to save the world.

I both love and hate the reactions I get when I list The Lego Movie as one of my favorites. I love feeling like Emmett by the end of the film, with my mind opened to a knowledge and understanding that some people haven’t reached by embracing it as more than a fun time for kids, and I hate it as well, because people just need to recognize. The Lego Movie has everything any moviegoer would ever want: hella good performances by established and seasoned actors, beautiful animation, tons of laughs, and well-plotted story that sinks its teeth into the biggest philosophical questions there are.

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The secret to the film’s incredible fortitude is the creative talent behind the “camera,” namely producer Dan Lin, who originally conceived the project, directors Christopher Miller and Phil Loyd, and animation supervisor Chris McKay. Together, these four men were able to push a corporate-driven production into realms of storytelling bliss that is becoming harder and harder to find among tentpole cinema.

Taking place in a Lego world that is as complete as it is imaginative, the animation appears incredibly lifelike–to the point where most viewers don’t realize they are watching something that is totally computer animated. Everything on screen is composed of virtual Lego blocks, from the buildings and vehicles to even the water, fire, and clouds. Every character is an authentic Lego figure, only able to move in ways the actual toys can, a stark contrast to the cheaply-produced straight-to-video entries from the decade prior, where everything moves in bizarre, rubberized ways. This is all thanks to the creative team, who sought to harken back to most well-known Lego fan films of the 20th Century, like Journey to the Moon or The Magic Portal.

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It is in this homage to the most small-scale, independent filmmaking possible that The Lego Movie shows its true heart, by turning what has always been a business model, or in the sad case of The Magic Portal a corporate shutdown of the little guy, into a deep tale of the relationship between freedom and order. As McKay explains,

“We wanted to make the film feel like the way you play, the way I remember playing. We wanted to make it feel as epic and ambitious and self-serious as a kid feels when they play with LEGO. We took something you could claim is the most cynical cash grab in cinematic history, basically a 90 minute LEGO commercial, and turned it into a celebration of creativity, fun and invention, in the spirit of just having a good time and how ridiculous it can look when you make things up. And we had fun doing it.'”

Emmett’s journey through the narrative only heightens this, weaving threads of Joseph Campbell’s analysis of heroic myths into a film that projects the age-old conflict of the freedom of chaos versus the social contract, represented in bombastic, childlike form by the likes of Morgan Freeman’s Vitruvius (literally the Renaissance Vitruvius), and Will Ferrell’s Lord Business (subtle). In addition, Emmett’s vision of the outside world and the “Man Upstairs” is highly evocative of Plato’s cave allegory, and when Emmett finally reaches the outside, the meta-textual nature of the film really takes off.

Of course, the philosophizing is sandwiched into a film who’s first priority is entertainment, and watching the filmmakers play in several sandboxes worth of sets, haphazardly yet intelligently weaving together everything that makes the Lego toyline so unique and fun is quite the treat. The actors take their cues from the filmmakers, injecting whimsical spontaneity into their performances that always has me grinning from ear-to-ear. Who wouldn’t be giddy at the prospect of Will Ferrell playing the ultimate universal evil, or Morgan Freeman as blind wizard who’s sensitive about being called old?

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When it comes down to it, The Lego Movie is one of the best films of the 2010s already, by far. It’s sheer entertainment value props it up above the usual summer drivel, and its themes of cosmic purpose and the value of personal liberty manage to stick it to the man while he simultaneously makes money off of the message. If you still can’t make it through a whole viewing, maybe it’s time to leave adulthood in the trash can and give it another go, because if Lord Business can be stopped by the wonder of a child(man), than you can too!

Double Bill Drive-In: Star Wars Day 2017

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Welcome Jedi! Come on in Sith! Imperials, Rebels, and scruffy nerf-herders of all ages! Maestro’s Double Bill Drive-In is open for business on this most glorious of cinematic holidays, Star Wars Day!

Tonight, we bring to you the coup de grace of the Maestro’s Marathons Star Wars Day event! It is an epic tale of heroism and sacrifice, where one group of unlikely martyrs makes it possible for another, just as unlikely group of spunky misfits to save the day in the grandest way possible. We are of course talking about the original Star Wars, and its direct prequel, Rogue One!

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First, the trailers! Two spacy previews, just for you!

 

First feature of the night!

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Movie Poster

The galaxy is facing the darkest of times. The Galactic Empire sees, rules, and punishes all with an iron fist. Only a small and underequipped Rebellion stands in its way of total domination. But the Rebellion may soon be stardust, for the Empire is on the cusp of activating its ultimate weapon, the planet-destroying Death Star. Leading a motley band of soldiers, guardians, and turncoats, Jyn Erso must steal the plans to this Death Star and transmit them to the Rebellion–and they may end up dead anyway…

Sit back and enjoy Gareth Edwards’ wildly successful prequel to the original Star Wars, and the first in Disney’s ‘Anthology’ series of Star Wars films!

Intermission: three more trailers!

And now, our second feature!

Star Wars Movie Poster

The original film that started it all. The Death Star still looms large over the galaxy, and all seems lost, when a young farmboy named Luke Skywalker finds the droids that carry the plans that Jyn and her friends fought so hard to steal, and sets forth with old Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, smuggler Han Solo, and the plucky Princess Leia to restore justice to all.

We’ve prepared a special treat for you all: you will be viewing the original theatrical version of this classic film, as it was seen the world over in 1977! Painstakingly restored by the passion and toil of fans, Star Wars is back, and better than ever!

“Star Wars is among the greatest of all films ever made, and Star Wars Day is a wonderful new way to celebrate its influence the world over. And on this 40th Anniversary, you now get to see the whole first chapter of this epic story. You get to see the sacrifice of lowly boots on the ground; you get to see the beginning of a messianic destiny. You get to see Jyn Erso and her band of rebel spies set the stage for Luke Skywalker’s journey to heroism. You get to see it all. And better yet, we’ve presented to you the original theatrical version of Star Wars, free from the decades of unnecessary fiddling by George Lucas and his band of digital Imperials. You’d be surprised just how much better Gareth Edwards’ larger-than-life cinematography blends together with the pure, un-pixelated look of George Lucas’ groundbreaking vision. So, from the bottom of my Jedi heart, enjoy!”
– The Movie Maestro, Theater Owner

And that’s a wrap, folks! Please remember to clean up your trash, and May the Force Be With You!

 

 

Maestro’s Marathons: Star Wars Day 2017

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Rejoice, fellow denizens of that galaxy far, far away! Star Wars Day is once again upon us!

A now-recognized official fandom day by Twentieth Century Fox, Star Wars Day originally began as little more than a pun, “May the 4th be with you.” As these things tend to, it quickly spiralled out of control, becoming a day when Jedi and Sith, Rebels and Imperials alike celebrate perhaps the greatest cinematic saga of all time. This year, however, holds special significance, as it is the 40th anniversary of the original Star Wars film, and of the saga itself!

And so, in anticipation of this glorious day, I’ve prepared a special marathon for you all, revolving around the original 1977 film and its era in keeping with the 40th anniversary. Keep in mind, many of these suggested viewings are fan edits and preservations, so it will take some online hunting to acquire them. But don’t be discouraged, as it isn’t that hard of a feat to accomplish. After all, if Luke could blow up the Death Star…

Star Wars Begins: A Filmumentary by Jamie Benning
Beginning the marathon (pun intended) is one of Jamie Benning’s excellent ‘filmumentaries.’ What is a filmumentary? According to Benning himself, it is a format in which a “viewer can watch a film whilst additional material appears on screen including: deleted scenes, alternate takes, on set audio, text facts and information, audio commentary from cast and crew etc.” Far from being a rehash of previous Star Wars documentaries, Star Wars Begins includes such rare material as bloopers, an alternate opening crawl style, previously unreleased on-set video, in all a truly unique experience in behind-the-scenes archives, playing very much like a branching video commentary to the film.

How to get it: Simply visit Jamie Benning’s channel on Vimeo and watch away!

Star Wars: Puggo Grande


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Once you’ve finished expanding your behind-the-scenes knowledge, it’s time for sheer entertainment! But since this is a special Star Wars day, we have to do something different. My recommendation is the Puggo Grande, a homemade preservation of two 16mm prints of the original Star Wars film. “Puggo,” already well known in Star Wars fandom circles for his preservations of two 8mm condensed prints, was able to acquire two 16mm prints, an American print most likely struck for educational purposes, and a Swedish print which he used for the audio and several shots during the Trench run, which were too damaged to recover from the American print. Scratchy and dirty, this version is nonetheless extremely charming to watch, and includes some little key differences in audio from most commonly available versions. I like to imagine myself in a grindhouse theater, or a library screening room whenever I watch it. Pure, cinematic magic.

How to get it: This one is a little tougher, as it is only available as a DVD disc image, meaning you will have to burn it to a disc. To find it, you will have to search through downloads, mostly torrent sites.

Decision Time! Let’s inject a little variety into the proceedings. Once Puggo Grande reels off the projector (cheesy, ain’t I?), pick any one of the other main saga Star Wars films. My pick:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
I’m going with The Force Awakens, due to its narrative and spiritual similarities to A New Hope, and because, well, Rey is just about one of the best things to happen to Star Wars in ages. It also works as a great metric to see just how much has changed since 1977. Other than this one, I would usually go for either Empire or Jedi, but hey, I won’t diss the prequels today. There’s plenty of room for even them on Star Wars Day, plus, now that I think of it, Revenge of the Sith might be another good choice. The birth of Vader leading into the first introduction of Vader….Gah, I can’t decide! You could even really change it up by remembering that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is hitting theaters soon, and throwing in the first Guardians. Sure, it isn’t Star Wars, but it comes pretty close to being the Marvel remix of it, so why not?

How to get it: Uh…own them.

Decision time again! Your choices are:

The Star Wars Holiday Special
Image result for star wars holiday specialReleased on primetime television during the Christmas season of 1978, the Star Wars Holiday Special is quite the anomaly, seeming more an excuse to broadcast Bea Arthur and Art Carney skits than to advance the world of Star Wars. However, being the first “official” spinoff and hailing from the early era of the franchise, it makes sense to see what all the hubbub’s about. Just be warned; it’s as zany a Star Wars experience as you’ll ever find, with half of the cast appearing high as a kite, loads of reused visual effects shots, a plotline that more follows Chewbacca’s weird (and frankly creepy) family, and Carrie Fisher singing. Yes, she sings. No, it isn’t wonderful. Come to think of it, this one would be a hell of a basis for a drinking game. Note to self….

How to get it: It’s actually available on YouTube!

or

Star Wars: Droids


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If the Holiday Special is too crazy for your blood, then I suggest you try out a few episodes of the Droids animated series from 1985. Acting as a loose prequel to A New Hope, Droids depicts the early adventures of C-3P0 and R2-D2, that most lovable robotic duo of the galaxy, as they navigate the treacherous new Empire, and serve several different masters. Some noteworthy episodes to consider include “A Race to the Finish,” which features Jabba the Hutt and Boba Fett, and the Roon arc of episodes that finishes the series.

How to get it: The entire 15-episode run is readily available on YouTube.

Double Feature:
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story / Star Wars
Star Wars Day 2017


Close out Star Wars Day 2017 with a truly epic double feature: Rogue One, and the original 1977 version of Star Wars! Click here to check it out in full.

How to get it: For Rogue One, go out and buy it!
If you don’t own or wish to use a VHS copy of Star Wars to view the original version (since it is unavailable officially on DVD or Blu-ray), I would suggest tracking down either Harmy’s Despecialized Edition, an HD reconstruction of the original theatrical version, or Team Negative-1’s Silver Screen Edition, a preservation of a real, 35mm print of the original cut. The Silver Screen Edition will be the harder one to acquire, as it is only available as a disc image that one must burn to a BD. Harmy’s Despecialized is available in several different packages; refer to this guide to acquire one.

And that would be a wrap! Now, of course, these are only suggestions, feel free to mix and match or go against the grain. Even if you cannot acquire some of the fan preservations here such as Puggo Grande or the Despecialized Edition, that’s okay. Star Wars even at its lowest point is still Star Wars. So enjoy the day, and May the Force Be With You!

Fan Edit Review: Dune: Third Stage Edition

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Original Film Written and Directed by David Lynch
Fan Edit by PhineasBG
Category: Extended Edition

Dune is a literary science fiction masterpiece whose definitive cinematic portrayal is still elusive. Much can be said about the aborted attempts made at bringing the first novel to the screen, and while the Sci-Fi Channel’s 2000 miniseries may have been a bit more accurate in the events depicted within its runtime, David Lynch’s 1984 theatrical effort is still a fascinating piece of work.

Unfortunately, even a definitive version of this film doesn’t truly exist. Lynch’s theatrical version was about 2 hours long, which meant that the meat of its narrative was severely trundcated by studio demands for a more commercial picture. When an extended cut was commissioned for television, the resultant mess of bad pacing, repeated special effects shots, and rough shape of the restored footage led to Lynch disowning that version, leaving it to be credited to the dreaded ‘Alan Smithee.’

Enter fan editor PhineasBG. While there are several other Dune fan edits out there, most attempt to bring the film more in line with the novel, while one attempts to recreate what the pre-release workprint might have been like. The Third Stage Edition is something else entirely. Working from a widely-available shooting script and utilizing footage from both cuts and the selection of deleted scenes from the Special Edition DVD released in 2006, Third Stage aims to restore what is presumed to be Lynch’s actual director’s cut.

Being the first fan edit I ever got my hands on, I was plenty excited to experience it, and I was not disappointed. The story now feels complete and epic, coming in just under 3 hours but suffering none of the repetition of the extended edition. Most of the deleted scenes restored are incredibly welcome, most especially the extended bits of the climax, for example the death of Thufir Hawat and Paul claiming Irulan as his wife. There are still problems inherent to Lynch’s version, which include the incredibly short amount of time Paul and Chani fall in love, and the pacing around Jessica’s taking of the Water of Life, but with no surviving examples of that footage, PhineasBG did his best, and his best is still wonderful.

Even only being available on DVD, the picture and sound quality are surprisingly good for its age. Black levels are inconsistent, but the picture retains its color and has pretty good resolution for the format, having been sourced from 720p. The extended edition footage, long missing the blue-within-blue eye FX, has been restored digitally. No more Fremen continuity errors. Deleted scenes are still a bit rough and scratchy compared to the rest of the picture, but again, this is the way it is when the source footage is unrestored. I can’t expect everyone to be Harmy.

The sound mix is deep and bassy, enough to shake the house when turned up. Some people aren’t a fan of this, but I love hearing the speakers rumble. Another big thing to note is that whenever possible, the theatrical cut audio is used on the sountrack, as the extended edition made some rather nonsense changes to the audio that frankly left me scratching my head. Bravo, PhineasBG.

Sadly, however, this is the part where I must break the bad news. The Third Stage Edition seems to be unavailable. There is one peer-to-peer sharing copy of a lower-quality video file, but there are no seeders, and that appears to be all she wrote. I will be holding onto my DVD copy tightly now. PhineasBG himself has stated that if the Extended Cut were to ever be released on Blu-ray, that he would recreate the edit in HD. Now, a year ago I would have told you not to hold your breath, but with the new Denis Villeneuve version underway and looking like a real possibility, perhaps in a year or two it might actually happen. We’ll just have to see. In the meantime, I hear that the Alternative Edition Redux by Spicediver is similar in execution, but without having seen it, I can’t speak to that.

Until then, if anybody reading this happens to find it again, please shoot me an email!

REVIEW: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

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Directed by Gareth Edwards
Written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, Story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, Based on Characters Created by George Lucas
Starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang, Ben Mendelsohn, Riz Ahmed, Forest Whitaker, Mads Mikkelsen

Star Wars: The Force Awakens may have been the record-setter in anticipation and box office gross, but Rogue One was the wild card of the new Star Wars cinematic universe by Disney and Lucasfilm. Just about everybody was curious about this film and the direction it would take the franchise. And while it didn’t match The Force Awakens‘ take or crowds, it just may have outdone its predecessor in sheer quality.

The long-sputtering Rebel Alliance faces certain doom when one of their spies, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), learns of a secret weapon nearing completion, one powerful enough to destroy an entire planet. Desperately seeking any way to destroy it, Cassian and the Rebels enlist the help of young criminal Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in the hopes that she will be able to contact her father, the weapon’s designer, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). Jyn, Cassian, and a motley bunch of outlaws set out into the oppressed galaxy, relying only on each other and the faint hope of salvation to succeed in their suicide mission to restore freedom.

When I reviewed Godzilla a few weeks back, I couldn’t stop gushing over the style and craft of director Gareth Edwards. The man’s breakthrough career in Hollywood is the stuff of geek myth, going from a critically-acclaimed indie hit to helming a proper Americanization of Japan’s greatest monster, to now being a part of the revival of the holy grail of American cinema, Star Wars. And even more so than J.J. Abrams, Edwards deserved his spot. Rogue One is a very hands-on, gritty kind of a movie, taking us away from the exceptional Skywalker clan and into the galaxy at large in a way that hasn’t been seen since The Empire Strikes Back. Whole worlds are stocked full of props, decoration, and extras that enrich each setting a thousand fold, implying vast histories spanning millennia with just a few seconds of celluloid. Edwards’ sense of scale is also well-used in Star Wars, where he employs similar angles and shots used by Abrams in new and creative ways, and always, always showing us the grand sights from the little guy’s point of view. Star Destroyers by now are pretty much typical Star Wars fare….but you’ve never seen one like this:

Being the first of the so-called Anthology films, Rogue One is based on a story treatment by VFX artist John Knoll. Knoll’s treatment was simple enough: take the mission briefly touched upon in the first film’s opening crawl, and expand that into a prequel picture. Gary Whitta, Chris Weitz, and Tony Gilroy have fleshed this simple idea out beautifully, crafting a film much more complex and morally ambiguous than anything seen in the main saga. The Empire is still evil and the Rebels are still just, but the banality of the Imperial threat and the shakiness of the Rebel cause are on prominent display.

This gives the actors more to work with than in, say, George Lucas’ prequels. He had these ideas, but his execution was poor compared to this film. Diego Luna and Forest Whitaker use these newfound shades of grey to the greatest effect, with Whitaker wheezing through hazy dialogue as if decades of insurgency has stripped his mind as much as his body, and Luna gnashing his metaphorical teeth at the pain of knowing that he’s just another assassin, a monster not meant to live in the paradise the Rebellion wishes to restore. Navigating the moral chaos is Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso, an even stronger female hero than Daisy Ridley’s Rey. She’s badass, headstrong, and hopelessly broken; yet she conveys incredible emotion, especially in her brief moments with Whittakker and Mikkelsen, the Oppenheimer-esque creator of the dreaded Death Star. And I would be remiss not to mention the fantastic contributions of Tudyk, Jiang, Yen, Ahmed, and Mendelsohn. Quite frankly, there is not a weak actor or character anywhere in the bunch. Rogue One‘s cast will forever be remembered as one of the very best.

One blemish, however, threatens to taint the legacy in my eyes: the “digital faces.” Most everyone and their grandmother has praised the CGI recreations of Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher as their characters Governor Tarkin and Princess Leia, but I cannot see how. While they look much better and more expressive than previous attempts at the effect, it still has not reached a convincing level, with muscle fluctuations appearing flat and eyes still not passing the uncanny valley. This is by no means a conclusion of failure on the part of the effects technicians, but more of a argument against their use altogether. The end result is often times too distracting to my eyes, and in Tarkin’s case (he is seen much more often) I feel it was completely unnecessary, as Guy Henry, his stand-in, looked and sounded close enough to Cushing to practically double for him under light prosthetics. It’s simply an opinion that at least Tarkin could have been handled better.

But for the one thing it gets wrong, Rogue One does everything else right. The cast is perfect, the story is nuanced, and the craft is exemplary. Michael Giacchino translates John William’s themes into a new and exciting context; Alan Tudyk uses on-set motion capture to great comedic effect as K-2SO; the last act is a tour-de-force war epic that approaches actual war films in its emotion and intensity. Even the final fan-favorite scene, in which Darth Vader himself boards the Rebel flagship to demonstrate why he is the Lord of the Sith, is expertly shot, and narratively relevant: it serves as a snapshot of the film’s entire thesis, the struggle of outmanned, outgunned, but determined rebels against a superior force that far exceeds anything they can accomplish, triumphing against this impossible obstacle through hope alone. It’s a wonderful thing to portray in today’s world, and the backbone of the entire Star Wars saga.